Modal verbs can lend colour to your speech (image from freeimages.com)

À la modal : how these little nuancing verbs can fix your fluency

I have a nerdish love of verbs. For me, it’s where it all comes together in language. They are sentence glue. Conjugate them, and you can hang the rest of the sentence from them like on the branches of a tree. But there is a small group of verbs that always make me feel more expressive and fluent in a foreign language. They are the modal verbs.

You have likely already come across them in your studies. In English, they are words like canmustshould and so on. They are often irregular, and very high-frequency in the languages they belong to.

So why are they such a boost to fluency?

À la modal verbs

The magic of modals is that they nuance what you say. They decorate your sentence tree with colourful subtexts. Technically speaking, they layer your speech with modality – the ability to express situations which may not be real.

Concretely, modals are verbs that imply intention, possibility, obligation and probability. These are all complex nuances, but very quick and easy to apply succinctly with modals. And they fix a common frustration of beginners: boring conversation syndrome.

It is a common beginner language learner experience to feel limited by straightforward, indicative tenses. You quickly frustrate yourself in speaking if all you can do is make statements of fact. I am a studentI went to a concertwe have a dog, we travelled to Spain. Hmm – boring!

Modal verbs change that up. They colour the story. Suddenly, I could be a studentI wanted to go to a concertwe should have a dogwe might go to Spain. Beyond bare statements of fact, you are now expressing hopes, wishes, dreams, judgements, assessments and more. From dull zero to language learning hero through the addition of just a few words.

Letting you off lightly

Modal verbs can actually make your language easier to speak, as well. Since they usually connect to the bare infinitive – or most basic form – of another verb, they give you a wee respite from conjugating it.

For example, let’s take the Spanish verb phrase:

ir al colegio (to go to school)

Ir is a notoriously irregular verb. If you are fumbling for its past form when trying to say I went to school, then there is a simpler way: modal verbs and constructions. If you have memorised the simple past of ‘had to’ in Spanish, it becomes easy:

tuve que ir al colegio (I had to go to school)

That tuve que construction just saved you if you had forgotten the form fui (I went). Fair enough, the meaning is subtly different – you are expressing obligation here instead. But it is close enough to express the original indicative sense that you went to school too. A neat trick.

The great thing with this tactic is that just learning a couple of conjugated forms of modal verbs can go a long way. You need only learn a few key forms at first. Perhaps the first person present and past forms (I mustI had toI canI could and so on) are the most immediately useful for conversation. Then, simply clip on whole verb phrases to the end – no conjugation required. An instance fluency boost!

To continue the metaphor of the verb as the trunk of a tree, modal verbs are big, sturdy branches that can comfortably take the weight of even more verbs.

More bang for your buck

Let’s face it – some words are more useful than others.

For a start, modal verbs are common, high-frequency words that you will regularly come across. A good benchmark is where a word appears on a frequency list of words in the target language. Anything in the top hundred suggests that you will be exposed to the word all the time. Spanish puede (can) features in its top sixty, as does its French counterpart peut and German kann.

But something makes them even more useful that just being frequent. They are often semantically overloaded, too, meaning that they have multiple meanings depending on context.

Just take must in English. It can be a bare indicator of obligation, as in we must go. But it can also express the speaker’s assessment of high probability, as in they must be the new students. Many languages mirror this usage, such as the Spanish debe de estar cansado (he must be tired).

Consulting any good reference on your target language should throw up scores of examples. This Wiktionary page on the Spanish deber (must) gives a good overview of that word, for instance. After checking out constructions there, you can then hunt down sample sentences containing them on a service like Tatoeba.

Overloaded words are excellent news for squeezing lots of language out of a little learning. You get even greater mileage than normal out of each modal verb mastered.

Modal Verbs : fast-tracking fluency

Convinced by these little nuancing fluency helpers? The facts speak for themselves. Modal verbs are high frequency words. There are just a few to learn. They have dense, multiple meanings. And they make speaking easier when you are still grappling with general verb conjugation. They are the perfect fodder for a bit of language hacking towards fast fluency.

Could it be magic? It just might. Say yes we can and enjoy pumping up your fluency with modal verbs!

Accent and dialect (like Doric Scots) lend colour to language- and learning opportunities to linguists. (Image from freeimages.com)

The Accent Challenge : Develop 3D Listening in your Foreign Languages

Of all the characteristic features of regions, few lend as much colour and hue as local accent. And, fresh from a weekend in North East Scotland, I’ve had another chance to ponder this as I soak up the distinct Doric dialect.

In many ways, my continued adventures with Doric Scots remind me of my experiences as a language learner ‘in the wild’. There are few things more challenging and frustrating – yet more galvanising for your language skills – than exposure to a range of accents and dialects.

Experience with accent and dialect is extremely useful to the language learner. But that doesn’t make them an easy ride!

Baptism by fire

As a languages undergraduate at university, I must have been a stickler for punishment. So fascinated was I by dialects, that I threw myself directly into their path. I sought out every opportunity to experience all the regional colours of German.

Naturally, it surprised nobody when I picked Austria for my year abroad.

If ever there was a baptism by fire, it was those first two weeks in Austria. Did I think I could speak German? Well, two weeks of standing baffled at supermarket counters, train stations and other accent-stippled social situations took me down a peg or two. It was like a whole other language!

But, slowly, things fell into place. I gained an awareness of how German words change in Austrian mouths. I layered my German vocabulary with an extra dimension, a geometry of sound changes with a real regularity as well as a perceived unpredictability to my initial, untrained ear. Gradually, that unpredictability turned into familiarity, and Austrian German was a stranger no more.

My German listening skills were all the better for it. If you can work out how Austrian sounds map onto Hochdeutsch, you have the skills to develop a comprehension of other accents and dialects, too. German pronunciation ceases to be a single equivalent sound for a written word. It leaps from the page and exists in multiple forms and dimensions.

Accent training gave me this 3D awareness of the phonology of German.

The lesson of accent

First and foremost, accent has this important lesson for linguists: expect the unpredictable, but learn to seek the order within it.

No foreign language course can prepare you for all variants of a language. Eventually, unless you limit yourself to purely written material, you will come up against real world variation. But accent teaches us to expect this unpredictable element (and remind us that preparing for it is a vital skill).

What’s more, once you learn to spot the patterns in a new configuration of your foreign language, you develop a much closer relationship with it. It is no longer flat and grayscale, but full colour multidimensional. Like a bird’s eye view, ease with accent comprehension gives you multiple perspectives over the languages you learn.

We can see an analogue to this in category learning. We might learn what a cat is from a single image of a cat, for example. However, over time, we learn to associate cat with a slightly more general set of characteristics that can vary from animal to animal (breed, colour, tailed or tailless, etc.).

In the same way, an unfamiliar accent helps you to learn that the category of sound X can vary (vowel quality, length and so on), although it still counts as sound X. German Katze might sound like Kotze in Austria, but it’s still that same old cat.

Fighting through frustration

At first, the road to mastering this skill of 3D perception can be incredibly frustrating. We spend many hours on our favourite subject, learning vocabulary, phrases, grammar. When we are faced with real life, unfettered language, we feel that we should understand, thanks to all those hours of study. But when unfamiliar accent renders that a tricky task, the “but I should know this!” feeling can be a tough experience.

But fear not. There are a couple of solid ways to gain exposure to regional variation before it gets to that face-to-face test.

Podcasts from places

Thanks to the media explosion, you can easily find podcasts from any place these days. The accessibility of podcast platforms for smaller (sometimes completely independent or individual) content creators means that variety has never been so ubiquitous.

If you are studying the standard language of a particular region, then seek out content from other locations. For German, check out podcast offerings from the Austrian broadcaster ORF, for instance. Likewise, Iberian Spanish learners might check out multiple programmes from Latin America (and vice versa), with France-Canada providing another dichotomy for French learners.

Teachers far and wide

The notion of foreign language teachers who speak regional variants is not an uncontroversial one. I know learners who insist on their teachers being bona fide ‘standard’ speakers of the language (whatever ‘standard language’ might mean!). And, undoubtedly, a sound knowledge of what is regarded as standard and ‘correct’ language is important in an instructor.

But teacher-speakers of a regional variant will have both a knowledge of the dominant version of a tongue, as well as an everyday command of their spoken variant. The best of both worlds!

Personally, I’ve purposefully sought out and learnt with teachers of Norwegian whose everyday language is heavily marked by regional differences. As experienced teachers, they are both aware of standard Bokmål, and able to temper their accent if comprehension requires. This kind of purposeful exposure to Norwegian variety was invaluable preparation for the dizzying patchwork of dialects in Norway.

Plain speaking

You might fear that this fervour for accents and dialects might have a negative effect on your own speaking. After all, developing your own voice in a foreign language is taxing enough. Won’t all that variation just confuse the brain?

From experience, I know it is perfectly possible to dabble in dialect whilst maintaining a pretty standard pronunciation yourself. In Austria, my own German accent was not drastically affected in the long term. After all, I’d spent some years learning vanilla Hochdeutsch in school, college and university, and returned to those environments after my year in the wilderness. Plain old German German remained my default mode!

Conversely, you might choose to adopt some of those regional characteristics under certain circumstances. As people can be proud of where they come from, we linguists can be proud of where we polished our skills. Often, I’ll prefer to say schauen instead of sehen in German, just to put that stamp of Austrianness onto my sentences.

Accent and regional variation do represent a challenge to the learner. But with some preparation, you can reap the benefits from charging at this hurdle. 3D listening in a foreign language is an excellent superpower to have as a linguist, after all.

Kylie Minogue performing in Hamburg, making a little German go a long way!

Language Economy, Kylie Style : Making a little go a long way

It’s not all about cramming as much as possible with language learning. Sometimes a little can go a long way. And on a language expedition and pop concert jaunt to Hamburg this week, I was reminded of just that.

To set the scene, here’s the story. For years, we’ve been following our friend James following Kylie around all of Europe. She has grown as dear to us as to him over the years, and a regular fixture on our calendars. Through partying along with our friend on his Kylie fixes, we’ve seen a host of wonderful towns and cities we might otherwise never have visited. And so it was that we were lucky enough to catch her on Saturday night performing her Golden Tour at the Mehr! Theater am Grossmarkt.

https://twitter.com/richwestsoley/status/1066457232961929216

Kylie is no stranger to languages, and has more than just a basic knowledge of French. But on Saturday night, she showed us all how to take just a little, and make it count!

You see, Kylie really made an effort to engage with the local crowd.  She peppered her performance with snippets of German, from a simple danke schön (thank you) to wie geht’s (how are you). It may have been just a little gesture, but each time she did it, the crowd lit up.

It’s a valuable lesson in using foreign languages: making even a small effort can pay dividends.

Spread the love

Of course, it is not confined to the big stage, either. That light-them-up magic is accessible to anyone, anywhere, armed with a few words. And being on holiday with friends is the perfect opportunity to encourage them to share the fun.

That said, it can be a big ask. Not everybody is comfortable putting themselves out there, and taking the risk to communicate in a new way. We linguists sometimes forget that, being so used to facing down our social fears. There’s the fear of ridicule, perhaps a hangover from unsupportive teachers at school.

There’s all that I’m no good at languages baggage.

But then, when friends finally dare, they experience that sorcery for themselves. When they get a big smile from the staff at the restaurant or bakery, it’s infectious. You see how proud they feel that they got it right, that it was understood, that it made the other person feel happy. They get a hint of that spark that we feel as language aficionados.

And that is a beautiful thing to see.

As language lovers, perhaps it is one of our duties to teach others how that feels.

A little can mean a lot

There are ways to make this magic even more powerful by choosing your words and phrases carefully. Not all phrases are created equal: some have a lot more to give than others – socially speaking.

Words for social niceties, for example – greeting, expressing gratitude, permission and so on – can be densely packed with multiple nuances of meaning. Often, what they mean depends not only on the words, but the context. This makes them versatile, adaptable and perfect for the ‘little goes a long way’ approach.

In German, for example, take the phrase bitte schön. As well as the stock response to thanks (as in “you’re welcome”), it has a catalogue of other translations, depending on the situation. You can use it when handing somebody something (“there you go”). You say it when you’re inviting somebody to go through a door before you do. It can be a polite way to say “please”. Just look at its Linguee page to see just how multifaceted it is.

Bitte schön is probably the most multipurpose phrase in the whole German language.

If you can tap into these rich seams of hyper-useful vocabulary when you start a language, or when you are travelling, you can truly spin a little out into a lot. Not only that, but they are so commonplace and repeated, that you will be acting and sounding like a native by using them all the time, just as native speakers do.

Even as a full-blown learner of a language, listening out for those extremely frequent, ‘social glue’ phrases is an important skill. It pays to spend a decent chunk of time on that little core of ‘niceties’ vocabulary, as you’ll be using it more than anything else in the target language country. A good place to look before you get there is the first couple of pages of any good phrasebook. You’ll usually find them included in the section on greetings and everyday expressions.

Trickles to torrents

We can use this little language trickery, even as seasoned linguists, to pack as much value into our experiences as possible – be they more extensive language projects, or brief, one-off trips. For instance, I had an opportunity to put it into practise in Slovenia recently, as an attendee at the Polyglot Conference.

As I tend to base my travel around my target language countries, I’m not often in the position of non-speaker tourist. Beyond dobar dan (good day), hvala (thanks) and a handful of other expressions, I didn’t have time to do Slovene justice before my trip. But when I used them in restaurants and shops, the pleasant surprise of locals was palpable. It really doesn’t take much to show that you respect the country and people you are visiting.

Moreover, a small trickle can easily become a torrent. Dipping your toe into the waters of a language can awaken a deep interest later on. I had a really positive experience with Slovene, which piqued my interest more than a little. It sowed the seeds for a bit more exploration later on in my language learning journey.

Of course, that is the linguaphile’s perennial problem: just one more language on the growing list of dozens!

Wherever you go, whatever you do, remember that even the tiniest effort, the smallest vocabulary, can make a world of difference. Be like Kylie: take a little, and make it go as far as you possibly can.

Shrinking violet? You are not alone as a shy linguist! Image from freeimages.com

Shy Polyglot : Oxymoron, or the Perfect Blend?

A shy polyglot – that should be an oxymoron, right? All those languages, and too much of a shrinking violet to speak them? Well, the more linguists I meet, the more I realise that it is a hugely common experience.

It’s a topic close to my heart, as a shy lover of languages myself (just in case I haven’t said that enough in the past!). And shyness does give my passion rough edges at times, it’s true. As much as I adore the process of language learning, live, face-to-face speaking can give me the jitters. In such circumstances, it’s easy to fear, and avoid, speaking situations.

But in fact, a love of languages is a gift to a shy person.

Exposure therapy

You see, as a linguist, you can’t hide from speaking forever. The clue is in the name. The word lingua, or tongue, in Latin, inescapably brings you to back to the mouth at some point. Even students of dead tongues (a bit of a mean misnomer, as even languages without speakers have a rich life) will mouth the vocabulary they learn (or even more).

Speaking is the inescapable conclusion of learning a language. It is unavoidable, enticing even. The very shyest amongst us will still wildly imagine themselves conversing dazzlingly and fluently with native speakers.

So, eventually, we have to face our fears. And that, in itself, is therapy. Exposure therapy, to be precise, which has long been a popular treatment for a range of anxieties.

Scared of something? Then throw yourself at it with a vengeance!

Busting your shy side

There are a number of strategies for creating your own exposure therapy in a controlled, safe way. Some cost money, they all cost a little time and effort, but they will leverage your language skills to ease out the socialiser in you.

Microtrips

Of course, the ultimate language exposure is a trip to your target language country. If you can, regular, budget-conscious microtrips can throw you in the deep end and get you practising at being social frequently.

Once there, you can seek out situations where casual conversation is encouraged. Art installations, talks and cultural events are all safe frameworks to chat to strangers and not feel like a mad person. Earlier this year, I ended up putting the whole world of Eurovision to rights sitting next to a couple at Norway’s Melodi Grand Prix in Oslo!

Before a trip, check What’s On listings, and websites of local libraries and universities, to seek out opportunities. For instance, I ended up on a free Norwegian language tour of the parliament building in Oslo a couple of years ago, and ended up having a nice exchange with the tour guide afterwards.

Specialist conferences

You can also attend a number of special events organised by the emerging polyglot community. My recent trip to the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana was a real tonic for taking me out of my shell. The Polyglot Gathering is one I’ve set my eye on next, and looks like a similar safe, structured space for facing down your shy side.

Volunteering

You needn’t spend lots of money beating your shy nature. Volunteering at national and international events is one way to surround yourself with speaking opportunities in a structured way, for example. Look out for forthcoming events like the Commonwealth Games, where knowledgeable local volunteers are highly sought after.

Education fairs

Free conferences and shows are another way in to look out for. Education shows, for example, are quite frequent in big cities. This week I was at the Language Show Live in London, which was a medium-sized, friendly event for linguists of all levels. It attracted speakers of languages from French to Georgian, all open to chatting about learning and making new contacts.

The stands themselves are worked by an international mix of exhibitors who will be happy to talk about products in their language. In my experience, it is always a little French/Spanish-heavy, although that is perfect if those are your picks!

Whichever path you choose, remember this: your love of languages is no less legitimate for being shy. In fact, your linguistic skills can be an effective route to combatting social anxiety. Being shy and being a polyglot are, in many ways, perfect partners.

Islands can be language lifesavers (Freeimages.com)

Land ahoy! Islands, how they can help your language learning, and why you’re probably already using them

Sometimes we get excited about a new big idea in language learning, only to get a pleasant surprise. It’s only something we’ve been doing all along anyway! And so it is with islands, a language technique a polyglot friend introduced to me recently. But why is it so effective? And are you already doing it too, without realising it?

Islands : sink or swim?

The islands technique is developed and elaborated by Boris Shekhtman in How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately, a classic language hacking text now over a decade old. Personally, I have my wonder-tutor Marcel to thank for bringing it to my attention (as with so many other cool language learning ideas). It’s no exaggeration to say that he is a huge fan of the technique.

It builds on the concept of swimming as a metaphor for the beginner’s language proficiency. When navigating free, open conversation, the sheer unpredictability can leave you floundering. However, you can give yourself some dry land by setting up a number of islands as refuges.

These islands are short sections of text about key areas of your life and interests, committed to memory. You use them as ready-to-hand frameworks to plump out your conversation, or steer the conversation towards them to gain some purchase with your partner. They serve as familiar ground when you are on the high seas of target language speaking.

Sounds familiar?

The simplicity of this technique is its strength. But it’s also the reason that it probably sounds a little familiar already. After all, the preparation of short texts is a mainstay of traditional language learning. It is strikingly similar to the scripts technique popularised by more contemporary polyglot pundits. And I soon began to realise that I’ve been doing a form of it for some time already.

With several iTalki teachers, I’ve done some version of a prose-writing homework that mirrors the islands technique. It goes like this: at the end of a lesson, the teacher would give me a topic. I would have to write a paragraph or two on that topic for the next lesson, when we’d look through it, correct it together and talk in the target language about what I wrote.

These topics have centred on aspects of my own life – family, hobbies and so on – or general topics of conversation – social media, current affairs, travel and such like. After each one, I ended up with a ‘potted monologue’ that was corrected by a native speaker and well rehearsed through practice and discussion with the teacher. If future, real-world conversation throws these topics my way, I have raft of relevant things to regurgitate (or, as proficiency grows, adapt).

In short, I had been using islands for ages without realising it. And in your own language learning, I would bet that you can pick out similar elements. The best thing is thus eureka! moment, that realisation that I was already on the right track. Yes – islands can work for me, because the system fits so neatly into my current learning regime!

From habit to general approach

Of course, what I was doing roughly equates to the islands technique, but wasn’t particularly rigid or formalised. Like anyone doing weekly prose exercises like this, we can’t claim to have accidentally invented the islands technique independently. Certainly, lots of elements are there; but with no underpinning philosophy of learning, it’s not quite a language revolution in itself.

By contrast, the author synthesises these elements and more, usefully packaging them as a general approach. This more abstract overview acts as a more systematic scaffold to your learning. Rather than chancing across the magic that the technique can work, you begin to apply it regularly, to much more sustained effect. Not only that, but knowing the metaphor behind the theory – the idea of conversational safety and familiar fallbacks – prepares you for actually using the technique in the wild.

It is well worth reading up on what  Shekhtman has to say on the subject in his book. The rest of the short, sage volume is also packed with other practical advice beyond the islands method. It is no surprise that it continues to resurface amongst successive waves of polyglots.

Do you recognise elements of the technique in your own learning? Let us know in the comments!

A chamber of mirrors - reflective, just like talking to yourself can be!

Talking to yourself: tap your inner voice to be a canny language learner

Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness, some say. But it’s actually the hallmark of the very canny linguist, too.

Ask most experienced language learners, and they will tell you that the secret is speaking, speaking, speaking. But it’s easy to overlook how useful speaking can be, even when you don’t have a partner. When it comes to talking to yourself, something is most definitely better than nothing.

So don’t be shy (of yourself!). Here are some strategies and key reasons for talking to yourself in the target language.

Mine for missing vocab

When you are actively learning a language, you should be mining for vocabulary all the time. The problem is knowing which vocabulary will be most useful to you. Where should you spend your mining efforts? Well, talking to yourself is a good way to find out.

Try this exercise to start identifying missing words in your mental dictionary. First, set yourself anywhere between one to five minutes with a timer, depending on your level. Use that time to chatter aloud about your job, your day, or some other common topic in the target language. You will almost certainly stumble across thing you lack the words for, but want to say. Don’t worry – just make a note of that missing vocab in your native language. At the end of the five minutes, you should have a list of a few items to look up and add to your vocab lists.

Record, play back and perfect

Time spent talking to yourself is a resource you can maximise the value of by recording it. Set yourself timed challenges to chat about a particular topic whilst recording on your phone or computer. This topic-o-matic I created as a help for my own speaking may be useful if you are struggling for themes.

The resulting recording can be handy in many ways, including:

  • Checking your accent : Listen out for sounds you could improve. But equally, be proud of yourself by noting when you sound particularly authentic!
  • Revision : Build up a library of recordings on your phone, and play them back regularly in order to revisit and consolidate your topic-based material. (Note that this can be amazingly effective for other subjects too – I successfully revised for my Social Sciences degree by recording notes in my own voice and listening back to them regularly on the bus!)

As you grow more confident, you can go a step beyond simple voice recording, and try video. Practise in front of a mirror first, having a bit of fun with facial expressions, gestures and voice. Language is a performance!

If you are really brave, and feel your videos might help other learners, perhaps even consider sharing them on YouTube. There are many linguists who vlog their progress for all to see – just search YouTube for ‘How I learnt X‘ and you get a whole raft of sharers!

Talking to yourself before talking to others

Talking to yourself is an excellent rehearsal method before real-life language encounters, too. For example, I attend a lot of one-to-one iTalki classes on Skype. They invariably involve some general conversation to warm up the lesson. And that always goes better when I have warmed up a little beforehand by running through, out loud, what I’ve done in my life since the last time I met the teacher.

Make auto-chatting a regular part of your pre-lesson warm-up techniques, and you will notice the difference.

Run through the basics

Speaking alone offers a good opportunity to run through the basics, too. You are unlikely to find a teacher or speaking partner who will relish listening to you recite numbers, days of the week and months, for example.

Instead, you can try working some of this repetitive speaking into your daily routine. Number practice, for example, pairs up brilliantly if you attend a gym and like the cardio machines. Likewise, you can quietly recite sequential vocab to the rhythm of your feet as you walk along the street. And, like working out, getting your mouth around these very common words may help build up a certain muscle memory for speaking your new language.

Inhibition-busting

Successful language learning involves breaking down many inhibitions at lots of points on the way to fluency. Just think of that end goal – communicating with strangers – and you realise that it requires a lot of self-confidence.

Talking to yourself is a good intermediary step on the way. For one thing, it is something that doesn’t come naturally to many of us. It also reminds us that a key outcome of language learning is getting those words out there, into the world, through speech.

The greatest thing is that you can be silly about it. It’s a safe testing ground to try out all sorts of language. Next time you shower, give a thankful awards acceptance speech in French. Reel off a victory speech on becoming German Kanzler. Explain the secrets of your phenomenal success in Spanish. Be larger than life, and have fun with it!

Talking to yourself in mindful moments

Once a week I go for a one-to-one session in the local park with my trainer. I like to go as unencumbered as possible, so I leave my phone at home. That simple act frees my mind up completely, as it would otherwise be occupied by checking texts, emails, doing my Anki cards or – something I hate in others, but still do myself – idly browsing whilst walking.

Instead, I have some mindful moments to walk, connect to the world around me, and talk to myself! OK, so maybe not out loud (all the time) when I’m on the street. But it’s a good ten to fifteen minutes when I can just prattle in the target language, at least in my head.

Even in the early days of learning, before the sentences flow, there are things you can do. Try naming the objects you see on a journey (another lovely mindfulness-inspired exercise that helps you to notice the world around you). Did you see something intriguing or beautiful, but didn’t know the word for it? Make a mental note and look it up for your vocab lists later.

Fake it ’til you make it

However, if you do have your phone on you, it can be the ultimate talk-to-yourself prop. Feeling brave? Then why not walk down the street, pretending to have a conversation in the target language with an imaginary interlocutor?

To the naturally shy (like, believe it or not, me), or generally faint-hearted, this may seem like an utterly crazy idea at first. 😅 Pretending to have a conversation on your mobile? In public? Who even does that?!

But, like talking to yourself in general, there is method in the madness. It is a fantastic way to get used to speaking your target language in front of unknown others. If it feels too odd at first, a word of advice: you’ll sound less silly if you really try to sound authentic, rather than speaking in your native accent. Try to be convincing – it’s easier than it sounds, as most passers-by won’t have a clue what you are talking about…

Speaking, speaking, speaking

The ideas above represent just a few of the ways self-talking techniques can boost your learning. Try talking to yourself – it’s free, easy, and could be the perfect halfway house on the way to real-world, person-to-person fluency.

The next time you pass somebody muttering to themselves, try not to think they are insane. Like you, they might be learning a language! 

Adverbs describe how

Adverbs Aware: Learn these little words to ace your speaking early on

Hacking or bluffing is about learning efficiently. That means spending time on those elements that give you the greatest results with just a modest effort. And one great way to buff up your speech economically is to focus on using quite a general set of adverbs early on.

So what are adverbs? Adverbs give colour and hue to what you are talking about. They add in the how to your what. Just look at the following:

  • I brush my teeth.
  • always brush my teeth.

They can also help you to sequence your sentences in a much more coherent way, adding the exact when to your what:

  • I get up. I have a shower. I go to school.
  • Firstly, I get up. Then, I have a shower. Afterwards, I go to school.

While the first example makes sense, the second hangs together in a much more logical way. Also, it makes you sound less like a robot!

One single adverb can add a whole extra packet of information to your sentence. So why do we need to be reminded to learn the most common ones in a foreign language?

Talk about how, not just what

Well, the problem is that a lot of foreign language vocabulary learning can be thematic, or topic-based. Concrete topics like ‘Pets’, ‘Hobbies’ and so on are great for learning the words for things and actions. In other words, they’re big on the what.

However, vocab guides can scrimp on the how. they leave us wanting when it comes to describing how those things relate and sequence with each other.

Consequently, these are the words I’ve often struggled for when speaking a foreign language early on, particularly around the A2 level. They are very common words – just look below and think about how you use them in your native language. Fumbling for them when speaking the target language can be a real sticking point. “But I should know that word!” you think. And the fact that it’s not in your memory bank can bring the conversation to a grinding halt.

Avoid these pitfalls by preempting them, and working them into your learning at the earliest opportunity.

Have them handy

It’s a good idea to have these kinds of words handy when you first start speaking a foreign language. For example, they are the kind of vocab items which are perfect for speaking crib sheets. Have them before you in an open document during your lesson. Then, when speaking, you can make a conscious effort to work them into your chat. As with all learning, using means sticking.

The master list

To start you off, here are the adverbs I’ve found most useful in my own learning. How did I come up with these? Well, I’ve been adding them to my own vocabulary lists for some time. They’re amongst the first in my Anki lists whenever I start a new language, and I add them as I go along. As I tag all of my Anki entries with the corresponding parts of speech, I just did a quick search on tag:adverb to bring up a ready-made list!

Tagging a vocab item as an adverb in Anki

Tagging a vocab item as an adverb in Anki

So here they are, in English. Find out the corresponding form in your target language for each one, then add them into your own learning routine.

Adverbs of time

These words crop up in all sorts of conversational topics. Describing routine, habits, hobbies and activities for a start. They also support the recounting of stories, which is a key part of everyday chat.

  • always / constantly, usually / normally, often, seldom / rarely, never
  • firstly, then / next, afterwards, then, finally, at last
  • (not) yet, already,
  • right now, immediately, suddenly

Adverbs of likelihood

These words help you to give more nuanced responses than the deadpan yes / no. They also help you to position yourself more subtly when sharing your opinions.

  • definitely, surely
  • probably
  • possibly / maybe
  • actually (in reality)

Adverbs of manner

These general phrases are very handy for describing and comparing ways of doing things. Especially fun when talking about life at home and in your target language country!

  • in the same way
  • thus / so / in this way
  • differently
  • wrong / right (as in ‘I did it wrong / right’)

First the general, later the specifics

Of course, there are countless adverbs with more specific meanings, like slowlyquickly, intelligentlymaliciously and so on. You will pick these up gradually as you learn and practise your language. But the above sets are much more general and universally applicable, regardless of the subject. As such, they make a great target for some preemptive, hackish learning!

Do you have any unmissable words to add to this list? Has pre-targeting particular sets of common words, rather than thematic vocab learning, also helped you prepare for speaking a foreign language? Let us know in the comments!

 

Describe It! Speaking drill game for fun practice prompts

I’m always looking new ways to make speaking practice fun. It was BBC’s Just A Minute that inspired me to put this basic drill activity together. From a bank of many random concepts – TV shows, celebrities, countries, landmarks – the program draws one each turn. You then have sixty seconds to describe and discuss it without pausing.

Describe It! Speaking dill game

Describe It! Speaking dill game

It’s perfect for adding into your pre-lesson warm-up routine. And you can tailor it to your own level and needs – simply make your descriptions / spontaneous monologues as simple or complex as you can handle. Try answering these questions about the topics that pop up if you’re stuck for words:

  • What is it?
  • What do you think about it? Do you like it?
  • Who does it involve?
  • What else is it connected to? And is it controversial in any way?

Click here to open the prompt applet in a new window. As an HTML5 widget, it should run across all sorts of platforms.

Help it grow!

I put this together originally for my own use, so some of the concepts might seem a bit UK-centric. However, if you have some good ideas for items to add to the data bank, please share them in the comments or tweet me! I’ll add good ones to the activity on an ongoing basis. I hope others find it useful (and appreciate the silly humour that drives it! 😄).

Non-verbal communication, such as hand gestures, are just as vital as speaking when it comes to real-life language use

Speaking without words: optimising your target language with non-verbal communication

Sticking to your target language isn’t always easy. But it’s a rule worth sticking to. Denying yourself the luxury of speaking your native language is vital in building up mental ingenuity and spontaneous, flexible thinking as a linguist.

However, it is a thing easier said than done. Especially when your vocabulary is limited as a language beginner.

Unpolished Polish

My most recent experience of this has been in Polish. I’ve been learning the language quite casually for a while. I really enjoy it, but maybe haven’t had as much time to spend on it as I’d like. As such, my level isn’t particularly high just yet (maybe an A2), but I can get by.

Just over a year ago, I visited beautiful Gdańsk for my first taste of Poland. I knew my Polish wasn’t brilliant, but I was determined to try and use it. Fairly quickly, I realised that this meant mastering more than just words. It was all about supporting my speaking with purposeful non-verbal cues and pointers.

Thrifty speaking shortcuts

You can pave the way for an efficient speaking-signing hybrid language by careful vocab prep. The trick is to learn words and constructions that have a general, rather than a specific application.

Demonstratives are essential – put this (one) and that (one) at the top of your list. Also, non-specific placeholder words like somethingsomeone and somewhere can be linguistic lifesavers when you are short on vocabulary. Add like …like this / like that, and you have an instant tie-in to hand gestures, pointing and more ways to get your intentions across without being a walking phrasebook.

Likewise, many languages have polite constructions for requesting something. Examples include Polish poproszę, French je voudrais, German ich möchte, Icelandic ég ætla að fá, Norwegian jeg vil gjerne ha and so on. These are transactional workhorses that you can use again and again. They combine perfectly with the general pointer words or gestures above.

If you lack those, even just saying the word/phrase for please, followed by the item you want, should work. If that still doesn’t work, gesticulating wildly will eventually yield the desired results. Just don’t be tempted to lapse into English!

Finally, words of possibility are very useful when combined with hand-talk. Just a simple is it possible? or can I?, combined with some pointing, will make it quite clear that you are asking for permission, for example.

Not just crutches

The fact is that planning for all these non-speech cues and helpers prepares you for real communication. How often is that you have tip-of-your-tongue moments in English, or struggle for the right word for something? And, like me, most people use gestures all the time to supplement everyday native language chat. So much of our regular interaction is non-verbal.

These are not simply crutches for the initial stages of language learning – they are part and parcel of human communication. Language is not simply words. It is an process set in a context of bodies, places and intentions. Working with that fact in your first steps learning a new tongue is no bad thing.

Like climbing a mountain, making the most of your language lesson involves preparation!

Acing preparation for a good one-to-one language lesson

I’ve attempted Icelandic a few times in my life. That sounds ominous, that ‘attempted’, doesn’t it? Well, the truth is that I’ve found the language a real challenge each time. I’ve usually learnt it in the lead-up to a trip, then put it to bed for a while after my return. But last year, I decided to collect together the fragments of multiple start-stops and have a proper go at learning it upp á nýtt (back from scratch). 🇮🇸

Now, Icelandic is still extremely challenging to learn. I’d put it on a par with Russian for grammatical complexity, with the added downside that there is very little commercial material for learning the language. And I am far from the perfect student, squeezing my learning in here and there – and, perhaps ill-advisedly, learning several other languages at the same time.

However, over these past few weeks, I feel I’ve turned a corner. This week in particular, I had a one-to-one conversational Icelandic lesson on iTalki. And guess what? It actually went quite well! I’m not fluent by a huge stretch. But I stumbled, faltered and ummed and aahed just a little bit less. For the first time in forever, I feel I can actually speak Icelandic (after a fashion!), and not just rattle off phrases, parrot-style.

In this post I’ll look at how good preparation helped me to get the most from that lesson. I’ll also consider how that preparation could have been better, to squeeze even more out of my hour of speaking time.

Getting started

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I like to sketch out a few broad topic areas with rough vocabulary notes before a lesson. These topics are generally things I’ve been up to since the last session: travel, work, family / friends news and so on. For this lesson, I chose three: commuting to London, booking a trip to Iceland, and how I’d been practising Icelandic in the meantime (finding interesting articles online to translate).

I try to stick to a few rules in these pre-lesson notes. For example, complete sentences are out. Instead, I’ll write out vocab items and partial phrases, avoiding the temptation to create a script to read from. The aim is spontaneous(-ish!) conversation and flexibility as a speaker, rather than rote production of phrases. (Sidenote: there is definitely a place for the latter, especially in the very first stages of learning – Benny Lewis in particular has produced some brilliant guidelines on using scripts as a complete beginner.)

Sample preparation sheet

Here’s my prep sheet for this week’s lesson (complete with notes I scribbled during the lesson itself!). I typed it up in Evernote, then printed it to scribble on during the lesson. (Fellow Icelandic learners, please don’t use this as a learning resource yourself, as there are bound to be errors in it! It is really just my personal, rough scaffold for chatting, warts and all.)

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Because I already have a basic level in the language, the notes are slightly more complex or specific words and phrases to fit around that. In some cases it is brand new material, like “eins mikið og hægt er” (‘as much as possible’). I try extra hard to fit these in, as I’m more likely to memorise them through active usage. Other items include conversation cues, or main points of a story I want to tell. These simply keep me speaking and prevent the conversation from drying up.

This approach works a treat for me. It gives the start of the lesson a focus, so we can get right into it. It also provides the teacher with a lot of student-produced language – perfect for getting your grammar tweaked and vocab suggestions thrown your way.

Room for improvement

Of course, nothing is perfect. One shortfall was my lack of subject material. I’d managed to prepare three general “things I’ve been up to” sections, but started to struggle for novelty after 20-25 minutes, repeating myself a little. That wasn’t a problem, as there are always alternative activities to do in a lesson. But perhaps five or six rough prepared subjects to chat about would have bridged the gap.

Also, what you can probably tell from my notes is that I don’t always follow my own advice about brevity. Some of my lines are almost sentences. Not only that, but they tend to read in a slightly linear way. Like a script, an order is implied: I did A, then I did B, then C happened, then D will happen. I didn’t leave myself much room for improvisation.

Now, I wasn’t robotically reeling of those sentences in that exact order. But in future, I could make them even more efficient. As they are, they’re a little more fixed and restrictive than I’d like them to be. As a Social Sciences student, I found Tony Buzan’s mind-mapping techniques a fantastic support in note-taking; I think they’d work a treat in this scenario, too.

More than just the lesson

Lastly, what I haven’t mentioned above is all the other prep you do between lessons. The one-to-one hours are just single, brief points in your language learning schedule. Between lessons, you have to make a success of self-directed, wider learning, too. As I mentioned above (and in my chat notes!), I’d been a good student that week. I’d actively vocab-mined and exposed myself to lots of Icelandic in use by seeking out and translating online articles. (Nothing high-brow, mind – most of them were about the twists and turns in Iceland’s journey to pick a Eurovision song!)

No lesson is perfect (since no student is!), but I enjoyed this one and got a lot from it. Not every lesson goes so well, of course. Time is the biggest constraint on prep, and I’ve lost count of the occasions I wish I’d spent more of it on getting ready. Without exception, the better prepared you are to use language actively in a one-to-one, the more rewarding it is.